BY TIM BAINES, OTTAWA SUN
As a kid, Kelly Hoppe didn’t think the trumpet was that cool when everybody was listening to guitar-thrashing stuff from Cream and Jimi Hendrix.
What Hoppe, a sax- and harmonica-playing member of the iconic Canadian rock/reggae/blues/sweet-sounding band Big Sugar, which is coming to Ottawa to unplug itself on Friday, did think was cool was the Detroit sports scene. Each day, while living in Windsor, he thumbed through the pages of the Detroit Free Press, reading all about the Red Wings, Tigers, Pistons and Lions. He devoured boxscores and summaries,
He remembers making a big deal out of getting an autographed photo of Lions receiver Gail Cogdill and was awed by Detroit’s sports heroes of the day — guys like Al Kaline, Gordie Howe, Bob Lanier, Dave Bing and Steve Yzerman.
“I’m a homer, I bleed for all the teams in Detroit,” said Hoppe, whom Big Sugar fans have come to know as Mr. Chill. “I’m an NHL fan. I’m on nhl.com every day. While I watch a game, I’m also watching the stats pile up.”
He’s a sports trivia nut, who was hooked on music when his brother brought home Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and they listened to it over and over in the basement for three days.
“I found out why Gordie Howe (who started his career wearing No. 17) chose No. 9. Gordie didn’t like sleeping in the upper berth (on the train),” he said. “One day, the trainer told him, ‘If you want to sleep in a lower berth, you have to get a number under 12. So he took No. 9.”
He laughs when the topic of the Maple Leafs and their jersey-tossing fans comes up.
“As a Red Wings fan, I never hated the Leafs. I feel some kind of empathy for them,” he said. “I don’t boo at the ballpark or at the arena. Sometimes you lose because the other team is better than you.”
And now the segue from sports to music. Big Sugar’s Jan. 30 gig in Ottawa isn’t just a crank-up-the-guitars thing either. Think reggae. Think mellow. The show is being called The Accoustical Sounds of Big Sugar at the Shenkman Arts Centre. Big Sugar will also perform in a more intimate atmosphere Feb. 1 and 2 at Neat Coffee shop an hour outside of Ottawa in Burnstown.
Big Sugar has been kicking around since 1988, with some commercial success. Capable of churning out an awesome rock song like The Scene, with heavy guitar riffs and pop melodies, Big Sugar doesn’t worry so much about pandering to the masses. It’s about keeping the sound vital and fresh and creating something that isn’t a been-there-done-that sellout.
“Everybody loves to find out you have a song on the radio, but I’m not willing to do just anything to do that,” said Big Sugar frontman/lead singer/guitarist Gordie Johnson. It’s a lot more satisfying if you can get that when you’re making music you believe in.
“We’ve never used the same setlist two nights in a row. We’re musicians first. If it’s not interesting for us, why would it be interesting to you? If it ever becomes all greatest hits, where you whore yourself out and play casinos — nothing against the ones that do that, but I don’t go to see those shows. And I don’t do it. I don’t need the money.”
It makes for an interesting dynamic, the ability to draw on a large and diverse songbook and give it a refreshing twist.
“If you look at the people on stage on the Yardstyle tour, eight to 10 of us — everybody comes from a different background,” said Johnson. “There’s reggae, folk, religious, bluegrass, jazz … I guess I’m the emulsifier that blends that all together.
“This tour, our music is so gentle. There are no cables, no pedal boards, no monitors. It’s kind of like a family dinner, a spiritual gathering, a musical communion. The entire room is vibing off the old wooden sounds.”
To finish off, let’s get back to sports. Mr. Chill has some thoughts on the Super Bowl.
“Patriots 24, Seahawks 21. Seattle’s great defence will keep the Patriots below their outstanding offensive points explosion (45 last week against the Colts, 35 against the Ravens). However, Seattle’s offence looks to be struggling lately, especially their offensive line in protecting Russell Wilson. Seattle led a charmed life last week against Green Bay to pull out that win. The fake field goal for a touchdown, the Hail Mary two-point conversion. Plus the Pack left some points out there, playing it safe kicking several field goals, when going for it on fourth down in the red zone seemed like an option on at least on one occasion. I just don’t believe Seattle can pull the rabbit out of the hat two weeks in a row. Their hope lies in Russell Wilson being able to wreak havoc with his legs, but if New England keeps him in the pocket, as Green Bay did for the most part last week, the Patriots should get it done.”
MONEY FOR ETHIOPIA
Big Sugar wants to educate a village in Ethiopia.
The Canadian rock icons, who will be in Ottawa Jan. 30 at the Shenkman Arts Centre, have hooked up with World Vision to raise money to give a big assist to a village, Jarso, in Ethiopia.
Singer/guitarist Gordie Johnson says the band is excited to get involved.
“I was homeless twice,” he said. “I was young, I struck out on my own. You bruise your knee, you get up. I really have a feeling I’m receiving blessings every day I walk on stage with a guitar in hand.
We get on a bus, go town to town and put on a rock show, I’m blessed.
“Look at where I am. Those little guys don’t have a chance. It’s not enough for me to just go on a rock and roll tour. So we’re targeting a group of kids. I look at their pictures every day. By the end of this tour, I’d like to see a whole village of kids able to get to school.”
Fans can make contributions at the merchandise table at the show.
“This is something we can all get done,” said Johnson. “We can get all these kids in school. If they don’t get to school, they don’t have much chance of achievement.”